Mushrooms are an edible fungus that provide a variety of nutrients such as B vitamins, potassium, selenium, phosphorous, and copper. They are fat-free, low in sodium, low-calorie and cholesterol-free. While there are more than 300 varieties of edible mushrooms, only a few are well-known and readily available. Those found in the grocery aisle can be a yummy addition to soups, stews, and sauces, and often a substitute for a “meaty” flavor in vegetarian recipes.
Most of the mushrooms you can buy in the produce aisle provide approximately the same nutritional value per serving. But there are a couple traditional mushrooms that stand out from the rest by providing additional health benefits. And there are some lesser-known types, not found in the grocery aisle, with even more wellness-boosting properties. Let’s take a look at these mushroom superfoods!
The shiitake (Lentinula edodes) is native to East Asia and are now cultivated and consumed around the globe. It is considered a medicinal mushroom in some forms of traditional medicine. In Chinese medicine, for example, the shitake is thought to improve circulation, overall health, and longevity. Shitakes are prized for their rich, savory taste and diverse health benefits. They also contain many of the same amino acids that are found in meat, which make them an outstanding alternative.
Shiitake mushrooms contain natural copper that supports healthy bones, blood vessels and immune system. They are also a rich source of selenium, along with other minerals and B vitamins.
To support heart health, shitakes contain a compound called eritadenine, which reduces cholesterol levels in the blood, and beta-glucans, which reduce inflammation and help prevent cholesterol absorption through the intestines.
Shitake mushrooms support immune health through other beta-glucans and polysaccharides that boost white cell production, boost the immune system, and protect against cell damage.
Add these delicious super-fungi to your diet! (Be sure to cook thoroughly, as eating raw shitakes can cause a dermatologic rash in some people). Check out our Zesty Vegan Mushroom Chili recipe.
The American oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus) is one of 40 edible oyster mushrooms that have been used in traditional medicine for centuries. They are a good source of protein, dietary fiber, and a variety of vitamins and minerals.
Like shitakes, oyster mushrooms also contain compounds that support heart and immune system health. In addition, they are high in antioxidants and may improve blood sugar levels.
Maitake mushrooms (Grifola frondosa), otherwise known as “Hen of the Woods,” grow in large formations on stumps and at the base of hardwood (and softwood) trees. These hearty, “gamey” mushrooms can grow as large as 3 feet in diameter and 50 pounds, but most weigh in at around 10 lbs.
Because these mushrooms are wild-harvested, they contain higher levels of vitamin D than most mushrooms, with the amount dependent on how much natural sunlight they received. They are also a good source of potassium and phosphorus and some B vitamins.
Like shitake and oyster mushrooms, maitake contain polysaccharides and beta-glucans that support heart health, immune function, and blood sugar levels.
Lingzhi (Ganoderma lucidem), also known as reishi from its Japanese pronunciation, is the ancient “mushroom of immortality,” revered for over 2,000 years in traditional eastern medicine. Reishi isn’t typically an eating mushroom (although it can, indeed, be eaten) as it’s rather bitter. It is often used for its health-promoting effects as a powder or extract, to boost the immune system, boost energy, and promote health.
Active compounds in reishi mushrooms include beta glucans, polysaccahrides, and triterpinoids. Small clinical trials have examined the use of reishi for lower urinary tract issues in men, and for anticancer activity. Mixed results have been achieved, so further testing is necessary. Reishi was separately found to have the highest antioxidant activity of a number of mushrooms tested.
Lion’s mane mushroom (Hericium erinaceus) gets its name from its shaggy appearance. It is used as both food and medicine in many Asian cultures. The flavor has been described as “seafood like,” evoking comparisons to lobster and crab.
Lion’s mane has a different activity profile to the mushrooms we have discussed so far; it primarily works in the brain and nervous system. The main active components are hericenones and erinacines. The erinacines stimulate production of nerve growth factor, and help your brain produce neurons. In fact, lion’s mane mushroom has been shown in mice to reduce symptoms of memory loss and is being studied as a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.
Research over the past few years has shown that antioxidant and other compounds in lion’s mane mushrooms may also reduce signs of anxiety and depression in mouse models. One small clinical study has indicated a similar effect in menopausal women.
Other potential benefits of lion’s mane mushrooms seen in animal and test-tube studies include: improved recovery time after neurological injury, improved fat metabolism, inhibition of cholesterol oxidation with associated reduction of heart disease risk, and protection against stomach ulcers and inflammatory bowel disease. In addition, there are also animal studies suggesting lion’s mane mushrooms (or their extract) may be helpful in managing diabetes symptoms, managing cancer, reducing oxidative stress and inflammation, and boosting the immune system through regulating the gut microflora.
While the animal research is extremely promising in a number of areas, clinical human trials have not yet been completed.
There are many additional mushrooms (and non-mushroom fungi such as cordyceps) used medicinally as supplements, powders, extracts, or teas, with varying nutritional value, health benefits, efficacy and potential allergenicity or toxicity.
We recommend adding a variety of organic “eating” mushrooms such as shiitake to your diet on a weekly basis to enjoy the nutritional benefits and health boost that mushrooms can provide. Watch Dr Jaffe talk about mushrooms.